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Forest fire fatwa

September 14, 2016

Indonesia's leading Islamic clerical body has issued a fatwa against the willful starting of forest fires in a bid to prevent the choking haze that smothered it and neighboring countries last year.

Fire and smoke in forest
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Muharrman

Forest fires have become as synonymous with Indonesia as the iconic orangutans they are stripping of their wooded homes. In an effort to protect the archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, the Indonesian Council of Ulema has issued an edict forbidding the intentional lighting of fires in forests or on plantation land on the grounds that the practice goes against Islamic law.

"The Koran states that we are not allowed to harm the environment, and forest burning causes damage not only to the environment but also to people's health," Huzaemah Tahido Yanggo, head of the body's fatwa council, told the AFP news agency. She went on to say the edict would not apply to accidental fires.

The move was welcomed by the country's Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar, who said she hoped Islamic preachers would spread the word at a local level. "The most important follow-up is communicating it to the public."

Not the first fatwa

Orangutans are at home in the forests of Indonesia. Loss of that habitat is pushing them ever closer to extinctionImage: Reuters/R. Panggabean

The environment minister said the edict was more important than straightforward legislation, as it conveyed a moral message.

Contrary to the popular interpretation arising after the publication of Salman Rushdie's controversial "Satanic Verses,"a fatwa is not a death sentence. Indeed, this pronouncement is aimed at encouraging the devout in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, against starting blazes on purpose.

It is not the first environment-related fatwa to be issued to Indonesia's 225 million inhabitants. In 2014, the Council of Ulema declared illegal hunting and wildlife trafficking to be"haram," or forbidden.

Flames of devastation

haze in the trees
The haze, as it is known, took the whole region hold for weeks in 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Indahondo

But this fatwa is the first relating to the forest fires that cloaked the islands annually. Last year was particularly bad, with thick smog descending over Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia and Singapore as the slash and burn technique used to quickly convert rainforest to agricultural land raged out of control.

By the time the flames were finally tamed, some 125,000 fires had swept across the sprawling archipelago, pumping an estimated 1.75 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Hundred of thousands of people had suffered respiratory problems and 19 had lost their lives.

The Indonesian authorities say they plan to stop granting new land concessions for palm oil plantations - one of the crops grown widely on cleared land - and the recently established Peatland Restoration Agency has announced its intention to restore 875,000 hectares of peat land lost to the 2015 fires.

tkw (AFP/ Reuters)